India gave approval to South Korea's POSCO to build a giant $12 billion steel plant, in the country's biggest foreign investment deal since the launch of market reforms in 1991.
The POSCO deal is a test case for foreign investors eager to enter the fast-growing Asian economy, but it also puts the government on collision course with locals as farmland and forests are cleared to make way for the plant.
Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh gave his clearance but attached a series of strict conditions for the 12-million-ton capacity complex in the eastern state of Orissa which is crucial to the global expansion strategy of POSCO.
It plans to use the project to source cheap raw materials and boost output.
"Projects such as that of POSCO have considerable economic, technological and strategic significance for the country," Ramesh said, while stressing "laws on environment and on forests must be implemented seriously".
A spokesman for POSCO, South Korea's biggest steelmaker, said the company welcomed the Indian government's approval and it would now go ahead with further land purchases, suspended in August by the environment ministry.
Ramesh, who has earned a reputation as a green crusader for blocking investment projects that threaten the environment, warned that the slew of conditions on POSCO would be "closely monitored." Among the 28 conditions for the plant are restrictions on air emissions, and rules on water sustainability and the amount of green cover.
He is also withholding over 2,000 acres -- nearly half the project area -- pending assurances there are no tribal people living in the area.
Approval for a port to be built nearby by POSCO for the plant was also subject to 32 conditions, including a ban on building in high erosion zones.
A government panel had earlier found "many serious lapses and illegalities" in assessments of the plant's environmental impact and "serious violations" in the public hearing process. Amit Mitra, secretary general of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said the government's clearance showed "a careful balance" between economic growth objectives and environmental protection. Abhay Sahoo, leader of the Anti-POSCO People's Movement, which has opposed the project since it was initially agreed in 2005, said the "clearance means nothing to us. "We're going to fight against the project -- do whatever it takes."
POSCO's plant was among a number of big-ticket industrial projects that have run into difficulty over environmental and other issues. Industrialization has long been championed by economists as a way to create double-digit economic growth in India and pull tens of millions of people out of poverty. But across the country, acquiring land for factories has frequently created battlegrounds. Giant steelmaker ArcelorMittal has also found itself unable to acquire land for five years for a proposed plant in eastern India.
Ramesh made headlines last year by blocking plans by British resource giant Vedanta to mine bauxite in India and has put other major projects on hold, including a new hill station in western India.
The POSCO approval comes after India saw foreign direct investment decline sharply last year. The country's central bank blamed that in part on "environment-sensitive policies" that affected investor sentiment. For 2010, FDI fell 32% to $24 billion at the same time as locations such as Singapore grabbed 122% more foreign investment at $37 billion and China drew 6.3% more at $100 billion, according to UN figures.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2011